I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year bridging the gap between two groups of people. I don’t have a good term for the first group– implementers, maybe. They describe themselves as the folks “in the trenches” actively making changes and additions to the project. Then there’s management– the producers, the leads, the people with direct reports, and increasingly, directors and executives.
The two groups tend to think of themselves as separate. I’ve noticed, at least in the games industry, that it’s much more pronounced on the implementer side than the management side. In games, the studio structure tends to mean that the management layers actually in the studio are often considered “in the trenches”, particularly since a lot of them do the same work as the implementers. Beyond that, though, you get what’s often termed “the publisher” or “corporate”. There tends to be a layer of distrust somewhere in there, on one side of which are the implementers and on the other side is “management”.
I remember a producer, once, who became a studio hero when she went to the publisher to fight for more time and resources for the team. I was relatively new to the industry, but I remember other people talking about how she was “one of the good ones” and similar positive associations with the implicit suggestion that she was the exception to the rule. I recently had a classmate, a senior manager, talk in glowing terms about one of his employees, someone who had taken some extra time to fill him in on the technical details of some project, and volunteered to join him in a meeting to explain them. He’d expressed that he often felt like his employees would exploit his lack of technical knowledge to get away with various things, and having someone take the time to explain and help out in a meeting was hugely valuable to him. Listening to him, I couldn’t shake the familiar sound of “this was one of the good ones” and that implication that the person was the exception.
At the same time, I’ve noticed something about the management sphere as I’ve entered it and spent more time there. Networking is hugely valuable, and almost ritualized. It’s rather more than just meeting people over drinks, although it’s often that also; there’s a structure to it that doesn’t exist in the meetings I’d often attend with game industry implementers. I’ve started to figure out what the difference is. It goes back to the examples above– the communication that is valuable and important. The old adage “talk is cheap” is misleading– it might be cheap, but it’s incredibly valuable. Having a producer go out and advocate for their team, or an employee advocate for their boss, is a hugely endearing thing. It bridges gaps, it forms bonds, and it galvanizes relationships.
I’m starting a new job this morning, and I have it through a series of people who have all advocated for me. A classmate who I got to know well put me in contact with a firm who, upon meeting and talking with me, advocated on my behalf for the company I’ll be working for. Rather than consigning endless resumes to the void and going through interminable interview sessions with very little give and take, I instead had a variety of conversations about what they were looking for, what I was looking for, and how we could meet in the middle, and had a verbal offer before leaving the one and only 90-minute interview I had. I benefited hugely from others advocating for me.
In games, it’s often said that it’s “all about who you know”, which is true– it’s much easier to get a job if you know someone at the studio you want to work for who will, as above, advocate for you. What I’ve noticed in the management sphere is that what that advocacy looks like is very different. The business world has an ingrained understanding of exchanges, and since so much of it is about communication, exchanges of social currency are often understood. Those networking meetings are effectively interviews without specific positions; you meet people with the goal of finding personalities and skills that fit with needs you can think of. When you find someone, you know who to talk to– often someone who you’ve got a relationship of some kind with. “I used to work for X, I know they’re looking to fill my old position, let me talk to a friend of mine there”.
I wondered, when I first started meeting people in the business sphere, why everyone was so enthusiastic about helping others find positions if they wanted them. When I’d see the conversations, I’d just assumed those people were close friends, and it wasn’t until I had people advocating for me that I realized what was going on. The advocacy helps both sides, and the advocate benefits twice. People are looking for opportunities to advocate for others. It mirrors what I’m used to in games, where everyone helps everyone else find jobs, because no one knows when it’ll be them looking for a job. For me, it was familiar, and comforting to know that the two groups were not that different; one just had words for what they were doing.
I think one of the most valuable things I’ve learned from my MBA program is this structure of advocacy and how to do it properly. I’ve started watching for open opportunities and developing a sense of fit– who might I recommend who would fit in this kind of position? Who I know is suddenly just as valuable as what I know, because once I’m no longer directly implementing, my job revolves around communication, and knowing lots of people is as important for a communication-focused job as technical skills are to an implementation-focused one.
One of the things I want to look into as I point my newfound business managment knowledge through the lens of the games industry is how to foster advocacy between groups that are usually separate and distrustful of one another. More than anything, that advocacy drives strong relationships, and fostering that kind of environment can only be good for communication and understanding.